As an elementary school student, a teacher once told me, very politely and apologetically, that I couldn’t have something reasonable that I wanted in class because that would mean that other students would be entitled to the same thing, which would be bad for the class. I’ve long since forgotten exactly what the situation was, but I remember the lesson–sometimes, things which might be justified must be denied because of the precedent that would be set.
In high school, a science teacher once scheduled an activity important to the class at the same time that another important activity was scheduled for a popular student club. Students couldn’t do both, yet both activities were good and valuable, and many students went into a tizzy, asking the teacher to change the day and time of his activity. He declined, explaining that the real world does not rearrange itself so that people can get to do every worthwhile thing they want to do–priorities must be set, and sacrifices must be made.
He was absolutely right. That was a crucial life lesson.
Another teacher I had in high school made a large project due on a certain day, and explained that it would not be accepted after class on that day. However, it could be turned in early. Scared students asked what if they were sick that day. “Turn it in early, just in case,” the teacher said. “Have someone else bring it in. Figure something out. It’s your responsibility to have it in by the deadline.” Some students managed the task and got in it. Others did not meet the deadline and failed. All learned an important lesson.
I feel very grateful now to have had teachers who cared enough to set those seemingly uncaring standards.
Perhaps the biggest failing in our educational system today is the lack of willpower on behalf of teachers and parents alike to do the hard work of instilling these valuable lessons. I’ve seen many, many students over the years who are perfectly bright, ambitious, and respectful, but who have little to no self-control because nothing in their lives has taught them self-denial. I always feel sorry for these kids because they have so much potential, but their achievement will be limited by how much they’re able to endure rejection, frustration, and the need to make hard choices. We, as a society, do a very poor job of teaching children that they simply can’t have everything they want whenever they want it.
Much blame could be laid at the feet of a digital culture that entertains 24/7 like never before, but in reality I suspect that that’s a small part of a bigger picture. The bigger picture is that our society is soaking in a comfort level unknown in the history of the world; yes, even during this recession. Well within the memories of many living, our degree of material security would have seemed fantastic. I can’t blame American teens for having so little self-discipline, because so many parents have lost the stomach for it themselves.
Working in a public school, I see demands made for accommodations that just boggle the mind. One mother called to yell at me this year because there was an unknown amount of cheating going on during a test, so I gave the test again two days later. She insisted that that wasn’t fair, as her child couldn’t be expected to remember the material after two days. I humbly submit to you that, if that’s true, then everything we do in school is a waste of time. Remember when pop quizzes were part of the expected routine of learning, not a reason to take up torches and pitchforks and storm the castle?
This anecdote illustrates the principle: for too many parents today, the priority isn’t student achievement, it’s maintaining the appearance of an atmosphere of comfort and fairness. Too many parents don’t insist that their children develop the tough skin necessary to thrive in the rigors of life, but go on the warpath to make sure the world has no inconveniently sharp edges for their precious little angels. Many teachers have the same philosophy. One teacher once told me proudly that she sees herself as a “mother hen.”
Children trained in such circumstances will be in for an awfully painful adjustment when they leave the nest and realize how cold life is. We might be creating childish happiness in the short-term, but we’re doing grave harm to the long-term strength of their lives.
The world would do well to relearn the importance of choice and accountability.